Final Reflection: Paddling Beyond the Point – A Connected Journey
We made it to the Michipicoten River!
Paddling from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa is a world class journey that features some great conservation areas, beautiful scenery, and friendly people.
Thank you to everyone who donated, followed along, shared, and helped promote a healthier Lake Superior. Connecting the places I know and love on the Lake is something I’ll always cherish, but it was extra special that I got to share the experience with others. Paddling with my Dad was an experience we will always share together. Interviewing, discussing, and learning from all of the dynamic people I met along the way who were passionate about the Lake offered some of the most reflective parts of my trip. Paddling and chatting with Gary and Joanie who have paddled the entire country and Lake Superior provided some deeper thoughts on how conservation works, but also how we get to view the world through paddling and storytelling. I hope to organize everyone’s’ thoughts and recordings into a short video about the Lake, conservation, and our connection to it so that folks who watch it can share my learning experiences.
Sending along updates allowed me to share some of the ideas and knowledge I learned along the way, but others bounced around in my mind as we paddled along.
Although there is more to come, (and much more to learn) I thought I would leave a final update with the audience that has been following along and supporting the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy:
After having landed, I don’t feel like I’ve completed a goal.
In one sense, I’ve paddled 300 km and observed the entire shoreline. However, as I reflected, I realized my real goal was to learn about and connect all the places I know and love on the Lake; to learn from observation, but also through reading and talking with people along the way. Then to share what I learn. One pass through barely qualifies as learning, knowing, and connecting these places. I know that in the future there is always a different perspective to see these shores from; in different weathers and seasons or through the eyes of another person or perhaps with new information and changes. Luckily, Lake Superior isn’t some far-off place. Another benefit of “travelling” close to home is that what you learn is always relevant to your life. Another immediate realization I had upon landing is the comparison of what life is like paddling unsupported versus how I live on a regular basis.
Within seconds of waking up on a paddling trip you are making many small observations and judgements.
As you wake up, you listen for the sounds of waves and wind to determine what it may look like outside, and through the tent fly you judge the quality of light to see if it is time to get up. You forget the hum of appliances and buzz of light bulbs. You listen to the dawn chorus of birds and flapping of leaves in the wind (insert waves). Once you get up out of your sleeping bag you are already immersed in the temperature for the day and your brain is planning what layers you need to wear. Already you know whether your tent is damp as you slide out of it; from dew or rain, making your decision for footwear or bare feet. The more time you spend outdoors, the more acute and automatic your sense of moisture is; will it be humid today? Is there going to be fog? Will I be rolling up a wet tent? Your eyes automatically soak in the trees to see how strongly the leaves are rustling in the wind; you notice the direction of wind as its whooshing by and if its strong enough, the turbulence it creates in your ears when you face its source. The act of “getting out of bed” reveals so many insights that ground us in the natural world. It starkly contrasts grounding ourselves in a digital world, where upon waking up we check the time on our phones or watches or are woken by an alarm, followed by checking the news, social medias, or TV for our observations. We do not feel the weather on our skin, we see it on a screen.
Eleven days is not long to be out camping, but already I notice these small changes in how I start my day.
It feels good to be grounded in the natural world. As a nursing student, I know grounding ourselves with all of our senses is an effective coping mechanism for stress. We tell patients to think about one thing they can smell, hear, feel, and see to place them in the present. Being safe in the outdoors and on the water demands this. As we neared the end of our trip, my Dad was starting to think about responsibilities back home; grass that needed cutting, family members to check in on and workplace commitments. His voice changed from “We are on schedule” (his slogan phrase for the trip) to how do I organize my responsibilities back home? Anytime this stress slipped into his words, I’d remind him that we weren’t there yet, and we would figure it out when we were there. Right now, we had lots to see and do, to be safe and to enjoy our limited time on the Lake. After all, soon we would get to our destination and the trip would be done. There would be lots of time for those responsibilities then and maybe never the opportunity to be paddling 300 km with my Dad again. My Dad was good about shifting his focus back to our trip, although I’m certain he has many more responsibilities than I. He would shift our discussion to the views around us, “How high do you think that cliff face is?” or “Loon at 10 o’clock!” and we would be back on track. Soon enough he was picking up my Waterson Dazed and Confused line of “Allright, alrrighttt, alright.” Further to my Dad’s credit, he was paddling a heavier boat with sorer, older, and stiffer muscles than I. Although he is in great physical shape for his age, I believe his strong mentality played a large role in allowing him to follow his son on this outlandish trip and being on the water for most of the day.
Along with the mental health benefits of grounding ourselves in the natural world, there are the environmental benefits.
When we are immersed in noticing environmental changes, we don’t need to specifically dedicate time and energy to researching the changes in the environment, we can feel them and live them. Sometimes strong anecdotal data alerts us to changes more than empirical data ever could. For example, I’ve never felt warmer water on the Lake than I did on this trip. Especially as we visited offshore islands and travelled further north and into deeper waters, I expected the water temperature to float around 8 or 10 degrees. Uncomfortably cold. However, as I collected water for our morning oatmeal and coffee, the water was typically warmer than the air—even on days with strong on shore winds. Where usually I would avoid getting wet in the morning, I was actually looking forward to warming up a bit in the Lake and dreading walking back on shore damp in the cold air. Empirically, we know that over the last 25 years, the Lake has warmed on average some 2.5 degrees Celsius. On a trip we can barely notice this small change, but species that thrive in specific climates are constantly affected. If I had been paddling the coast earlier in my life, I might notice the decline of arctic alpine species that thrive in this cool moist environment. Another example is the eagles that we spotted. They were highly condensed in the same area of the coast that was least visited by people. Surprisingly, most of Lake Superior that included hiking trails or other types of human use, were populated with only a couple of eagles. Perhaps this is linked to the quality of habitat or weather, or maybe the eagles were more difficult to spot in these areas. What we do know, is the presence of these apex predators indicates a healthy ecosystem; there must be lots of other species below them in the food web to support many eagles.
In addition to learning about wider human impacts, I learned about the impact of my personal habits.
As this was my first time packing for a long, contained trip, I was able to objectively observe how much I consume in 11 days; especially food, soap, toiletries, electric energy, and waste. To leave no trace and to reuse containers in the future, we pack out what we pack in. Soon reusable containers were emptied of food and fuel, then filled with our orange peels, tea bags, protein bar wrappers, and other single use plastics. I carried this waste with me for most of the trip as it accumulated, sometimes adding other pieces of waste I found floating on the Lake or washed up on shore. There wasn’t enough room in both of our kayaks combined to collect the flotsom and jetsom we passed by on the trip. Some of the oddities we saw along the way included a Teva climbing shoe, a red balloon (IT vibes anyone?), Hershey’s bar wrappers, oil containers, and a fishing lure. The Teva shoe was there so long it had roots running through it and the lure’s hooks had long rusted and eroded away. Although some paint had chipped away, its plastic body remained relatively unscathed by the pebble beach wash. Oh yeah, and my Dad found a pair of sandals that fit him perfectly and he has repurposed for his own use. This part of the trip made me really critical of my own consumption of plastics and other items. Being self-reliant, reducing consumption when I can, and being able to fix, reuse or repurpose items is a clearer goal of mine.
On a contained trip, you also notice exactly what you eat. With the exception of hardy berries you forage on forgotten beaches and offerings from friends along the way, your food is sourced solely from your packed supplies. No ice cream on the way home, fast food splurges or casual beers with friends. I challenged my Dad with a plant based diet and although he brought a bit of beef jerky to supplement this, he ate what I cooked. We noticed that we weren’t as hungry, we ate more regularly, we felt healthier, and we had less waste than if we had used other more processed foods. Our bodies have the capacity to do challenging physical feats given the right nutrients and the right mindset. Special thanks to Forest The Canoe for keeping us on track with an energy boost along the journey. Along with many other new friends who were kind and generous.
A smattering of other notes I jotted down along the way:
Small fires can be cozier than large ones. They also go out quicker! You feed the fire more, but you are only left with ashes on the beach as everything burns completely. Although small, they are still mighty warm.
Get the waterproof version. Spending time on the water means you don’t want to worry about breaking something due to water damage. Prepare yourself for the worst outcome. If everything gets wet, are you okay to be able to fix or replace items that aren’t waterproof?
The best time is now. Think you should check out a hidden inlet, beach, or crack in the wall? Go now! You might not have the right conditions or timing your next visit. Debating a trip? Go for it. You won’t regret going with your gut. My Dad’s favourite line for the trip was when I told him we didn’t need to look at the map, “trust your instincts! Or even better, trust mine.”
There are multiple uses for all of your gear. Sliding my PFD under my thermarest was a game changer for elevating my head while I slept.
Cobble stone beaches are the best napping spots. They can be molded to fit your body, have cool air flowing underneath you, and you don’t have to worry about sand sticking to your body or gear and getting into your boat. Bonus points for no ants climbing over you as you tried to nap.
Going slower and doing things by hand can mean more patience, but also greater reward. It is a special feeling to be able to paddle a boat you’ve built and one you know you can fix if need be. There were definitely some scratches on the hull at the end of the trip, but I know Bear Mountain Boats won’t hold it against us. Thank you for the support and stellar boat design.
If you read this far, hopefully you know the Lake a little better and have taken the time to think more about its conservation and the preservation of special places. The preservation of these special places rely on people like you and I.
Lake Superior is a special place of massive scale that I identify with and love to call home.
I look forward to learning more in the future and sharing more as I go.
By: Peter Greve